This month's hazardous air quality brought up an issue that, while never completely forgotten, seems to slip into the background with the first blush of spring. This past week, several Bend churches set up emergency smoke relief shelters to house people who live outside, and for whom being subjected to air quality levels in the 500s all day and night could pose a significant risk. The smoke shelters at First United Methodist and First Presbyterian churches offered a period of respite from dangerous air, and did so without some of the barriers that people might encounter elsewhere. Dogs were welcome. Families could stay together. No one had to leave early in the morning and wait for re-entry time later in the day.
- Nicole Vulcan
The people in the smoke shelters are some of the same people for whom the advent of winter means a difficult period—of not only managing the logistics of living outside, but also, of finding out where, and when, they might be able to access a warm bed indoors. Winter warming shelters exist in all of the towns of Central Oregon, but in many of them, the spaces move around to various churches—meaning a person has to keep up on the latest information to find out where they can go on any given week.
Advocates for the homeless community continue to proclaim it loudly: Central Oregon, and namely, Bend, needs a dedicated winter warming shelter—one that is in a stable location and doesn't come with high barriers to entry. A facility such as that would be a literal shelter from the storm on harsh winter nights—and could also serve as the gathering point when events, such as a spate of massive wildfires, cause those living outdoors to need respite.
Right now, local leaders have to declare an emergency in order for people to be able to legally open temporary, makeshift shelters in spaces such as churches or warehouses. The need for an emergency declaration came rather early in the season last year; when temps went below freezing Oct. 26, 2019, Bend City Manager Eric King declared one—more than a month before winter emergency shelters typically open. It should not take a state of emergency, declared for severe winter weather, for our community to take action. The many hardworking volunteers of the Homeless Leadership Coalition understand this and work tirelessly to advocate for the area's houseless population.
Last year, the Oregon legislature provided funds for Bend's winter warming shelter through funds from the Oregon Housing and Community Services department. The Deschutes County Sheriff's Office found space in a building slated for renovation. This year, much has changed, with our state facing increased unemployment and the governor reallocating some state funds to wildfire response in lieu of other projects. Where will the space, and the money, come from?
Deschutes County has made a lot of progress in the past several years in establishing partnerships among government agencies and private partners to fulfill a community need. The Deschutes County Crisis Stabilization Center, now staffed until 9 at night seven days a week, is one example. The Central Oregon Veteran's Village, a project in the fundraising stage that will serve as transitional housing, is another example of public bodies and private entities coming together to realize a vision. Likewise, Central Oregon could solve the annual problem of winter-warming for people without homes—but it's going to take more money, and perhaps more importantly, more public will, and involvement from more community members, to get it done.
Right now, many people are feeling called to help the firefighters and the fire evacuees who are turning up all over the Northwest—and for good reason. Our hearts go out to the many Oregonians whose lives have been turned upside down from the fires. Their needs are acute, and real—and meanwhile, there are those whose needs are more chronic, and equally real.
There's no doubt that Oregon needs more people to donate and volunteer during this time of crisis—but smoke refugees are wildfire victims, too. With that, locals should try to wrap their heads around paying a bit more in taxes—and advocating to elected officials—for a permanent warming shelter in Deschutes County.
The same shelter spaces that would support people during winter storms could also be the spaces used during a hazardous smoke event—and any other calamities that happen to come our way.
There's no doubt that Oregon is facing big challenges right now. As we move forward into this uncertain future, let's remember to think about solving problems not just in the short term, but also the long term. It's up to all of us—not just the same groups of volunteers, faith leaders and government agencies.